A resolution and document on Imperialism after the war on terror by Counterfire steering committee
Supporting document: Imperialism after the War on Terror
Defeat in the War on Terror
On 30 August 2013, the British House of Commons, recalled from its summer recess for a special session, voted down a government motion authorising an attack on Syria by 285 votes to 272. On 11 September 2013, US President Obama, facing tough opposition to war in Congress, announced that he had put plans for a military strike against Syria on hold, that he would pursue a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons issue, and that he had ‘a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions’.
This decision, by the two leading protagonists of the self-proclaimed ‘War on Terror’, is an event of global significance. The whingeing of the hawkish former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt makes this clear: ‘There is now a question-mark about what Parliament actually will authorise military support for. There is Gibraltar and the Falklands – I think we can assume those. I am not sure we can assume anything else. Where does that leave us and our partnerships around the world? We have put ourselves in a constitutional mess in this way.’
The Syria climb-down amounts to the defeat of the Western powers after 12 years of military aggression following the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and US President George Bush’s 21 September address to a joint session of Congress and the American people. Bush stated: ‘Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.’ He then continued:
‘Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen… We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From
this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.’
The War on Terror was an attempt to restructure the world to safeguard oil supplies, corporate profit, and US power. It was an imperialist war fought in the interests of the dominant world hegemon and its close allies. Its outcome has demonstrated the limits of Western imperial power and revealed the degree to which the tectonic plates of the geopolitical system have shifted.
Confirmation of the significance of the change represented by the Syria climbdown followed quickly. After years of crippling economic sanctions and threats of military action, on 24 November the US brokered a diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme at the end of the Geneva talks between Iran and six great powers (the US, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany). The deal, opposed by traditional US Middle East allies Israel and Saudi-Arabia, represents not only a shift away from the routine belligerence of the War on Terror, but also a significant partial realignment of US policy in the region.
Then, on 12 December, the US and Britain cut off military aid to the Syrian opposition led by the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. This was done after major caches of Western arms fell into the hands of Islamist militias. Again, there is an implicit partial breach with Saudi-Arabia, which has been funding and arming the Islamists.
The partial drawback from the Middle East is paralleled by events in Central Asia, with the planned withdrawal of all remaining British troops from Afghanistan in 2014, and the planned termination of combat operations by the much-reduced US forces. A measure of Western imperialism’s failure is that many commentators consider the Kabul regime too weak to survive without foreign military support and funding; the assumption is that it would rapidly succumb to the Taliban insurgency. Negotiations are currently under way to determine whether or not 10,000 US troops will remain indefinitely in a ‘non-combat’ role and the regime will continue to receive $8 billion a year in military and development aid. The US is bargaining for military bases for special forces and drones.
This brings us to the likely shape of conflict in the period ahead. First, however, we must analyse the reasons for the Western powers’ defeat in the War on Terror.
The Iraq Syndrome
In 1973 the US abandoned its occupation of South Vietnam. In 1975 the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) overthrew the US client regime in Saigon, and the following year the divided country was reunited. The US had committed 500,000 troops to a decade-long war and killed up to five million Vietnamese. It had been defeated by a combination of three forces: the resistance of the Vietnamese; a global anti-war movement; and the opposition of rival imperial powers. The blowback included what came to be called ‘the Vietnam Syndrome’: deep-rooted opposition to further imperialist wars inside American society lasting a generation.
A similar combination of forces has defeated the War on Terror. Within half an hour of the government’s Syria vote defeat, defence secretary Philip Hammond was laying the blame squarely on Blair and Iraq. The experience, he said, had ‘poisoned the well of public opinion’. Many MPs had indeed referred to Iraq during the debate. One described himself as a ‘victim of past dossiers’. Another said that she ‘cannot sit in this House and be duped again’. A third declared that ‘our intelligence as it stands might just be wrong’.
But these preoccupations reflect deeper forces. Despite a barrage of atrocity propaganda from government ministers and their media chorus, opinion polls showed less than one in ten Britons favouring military action against Syria. As Miliband is reported to have told Cameron in private, trust in the political elite had collapsed.
George Bush and Tony Blair launched the war with an attack on Afghanistan in 2001 and an attack on Iraq in 2003. In both cases they appeared to have won rapid, easy victories, toppling the Taliban regime in Kabul and the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad. In May 2003 Bush appeared on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce victory in Iraq and the end of combat operations in front of a banner inscribed ‘Mission Accomplished’. In fact the war had only just begun.
Resistance to both occupations took the primary form of guerrilla insurgency by a variety of militias and warlords; it lacked the organisational and political coherence of a secular radical-nationalist movement like Vietnam’s NLF. Nonetheless, the insurgencies became intractable, and, just as in Vietnam and countless other colonial wars, ‘mission creep’ (escalating military deployment and firepower) proved to be petrol on the fire, increasing the level of killing, bitterness, and resistance. The War on Terror has rendered both Afghanistan and Iraq impoverished, fragmented, and unstable; in neither case has it been possible to establish a secure neo-colonial client regime.
Much of the wider world was also spinning out of the control of Western imperialism. The wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were destabilising neighbouring states. The mountainous western border region of Pakistan has become a haven for the Afghan Taliban and Al Quaeda, a target for US drone strikes, and a centre of Taliban terrorism directed at the Pakistani state, a key US regional ally. The Arab Spring revolutions have brought down pro-Western dictators in Tunis and Cairo, and even where they have been directed against anti-Western dictators like Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria, the result has not been a smooth transition to a new client regime, but rather a descent into the chaos of failed states, warlord enclaves, and civil war. The shock-waves, moreover, have been felt across much of Arabia and North Africa, with some form of Islamist insurgency now well established in a dozen countries from Yemen to Mali.
Equally important has been the resistance at home. The global anti-war movement, which emerged in 2001 in direct response to Bush’s declaration of the War on Terror, has proved to be the biggest international protest campaign in history. It peaked on 15 February 2003, when anti-war protests in more than 60 countries involved perhaps 15 million people in total, with up to two million on the streets in London. In the decade since, the movement has remained a major feature of the political landscape, with, for example, a series of demonstrations over the years in Britain which have mobilised hundreds of thousands.
This mass movement has shaped public opinion. In October 2001, almost 90% of Britons polled approved of Blair’s handling of the Afghan crisis, and three-quarters supported the bombing campaign then under way. By 2009 only half of those polled supported the Afghan War, and by 2012 it was down to a quarter. In a recent poll (December 2013), two-thirds of Americans said that the Afghan War was not worth fighting; even one in three of US combat veterans were of this opinion. This dramatic swing of opinion – in defiance of the entire political establishment and their media echo-chambers – is, of course, in part a response to the obvious carnage, destruction, waste, and failure of the War on Terror. But opinion is not formed in an ideological vacuum: it is also a testimony to the size and impact of the anti-war movement.
The best measure of this is the vote in Parliament in August. Parliament is only the most dilute and indirect expression of public opinion. Again and again politicians have voted for war in defiance of the electorate. Cameron was determined to attack Syria and he expected Parliament to back him. The last time a British prime minister had been defeated in the Commons on a question of war and peace was in 1782 (the enemy had been the Americans). The vote on 30 August 2013 was therefore an historic event: it was the moment when the government lost control of its own foreign policy. It was a triumph for the Stop the War Coalition, and the answer to every cynical stay-at-home who had argued that demonstrations make no difference.
The third factor shaping the Iraq Syndrome is the influence of rival imperial powers and, to a significant extent, rival regional powers. Both the Middle East and Central Asia comprise a nexus of competing geopolitical and economic interests. At the heart of this nexus are energy supplies, primarily oil, but also gas. The Middle East contains about two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves. Four countries, Iran, Russia, Qatar, and Turkmenistan, account for a similar proportion of the world’s known gas reserves.
Oil is world capitalism’s most important commodity; without it, armies stop moving and economies shut down. Gas, as the world’s major alternative energy source, is not far behind. Oil and gas supplies are finite. This is the single most important reason for the Middle East and Central Asia to be global battlegrounds. Specifically, this explains the third factor at work in the Middle Eastern crisis: imperial rivalries.
Russia and China have been firm allies of the two main ‘anti-Western’ pariah states in the region – Assad’s Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Though they are on opposite sides in the conflict to the US, Britain, and France, their aims are identical: control over global energy reserves. In Russia’s case – itself a major producer – the motive is mainly strategic. In China’s – desperate to feed the voracious appetite for fuel of its fast-growing industries – the motive is mainly economic.
Russia, as a neighbouring power, has played the more proactive role, and the risk of some sort of military escalation involving Russia itself or more heavily armed allies and proxies of Russia has been a significant factor in US calculations. Russia played a clever game, matching US support for the Syria opposition with increased support for the Assad regime (e.g. by upgrading its air-defence missiles in anticipation of possible US attack), and meantime promoting peace talks and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
A secondary factor in the changing geopolitical situation – but one of growing global significance with the rise of numerous newly industrialising countries – is that represented by the economic and military strength of regional powers. In the case of the Middle East, the crisis of Western interventionism, first in relation to Iraq, now in relation to Syria, has enhanced the relative importance of Iran and Saudi-Arabia, two regional rivals with influence through allies and proxies across the region. The world is becoming a more complex, more layered, more multi-polar mosaic of imperial and nation-state forces.
The Wounded Beast
None of this makes the world a safer place. A British and US attack on Syria has been stopped, but the civil war continues, well over 100,000 people have been killed, one-third of the population have been displaced, and the conflict has spilled over the borders into Lebanon and Iraq. The global hegemony of the US and its Western allies has been shown to have clear limits, but this does not signal the end of imperialist war, merely an adjustment in the balance of imperial power.
In particular, the US remains the single most powerful imperialist state, with over a million armed-forces personnel at home and up to 200,000 stationed in military bases in 150 countries overseas. In 2013, total US military spending was almost $700 billion, representing 40% of the global total, and four times as much as nearest rival China. US power continues to face an imperial crisis produced by its relative economic decline (from around 50% of global manufacturing output in 1945 to around 20% today) coupled with continuing overwhelming military superiority over any conceivable combination of its rivals. This contradiction is, of course, a process: relative economic decline will, in the long run, erode military power; but in the meantime it will continue to find expression in a substitution of military pre-eminence for economic weakness.
This is likely to include drone attacks, air strikes, special-forces operations, the arming of proxy militias, and occasional full-scale direct military intervention, either by the US or one of its allies. A recent development is the increasing belligerence and pro-activity of French imperialism. French President Hollande was the most gung-ho of the Western leaders with respect to the proposed attack on Syria (a former French colony), tried to torpedo the US-brokered agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme, and has dispatched troops to Mali to take on Saharan Islamists and to the Central Africa Republic to take on the Seleka Muslim militia. Such operations are not new: between 1960 and 2005, the French carried out no less than 46 military interventions in its former African colonies. But they acquire new significance in the context of: a) the current partial retreat of the US from direct military intervention; b) the spread of Islamist insurgency across Africa in blowback from the War on Terror; and c) the ‘New Scramble for Africa’, which is seeing growing conflict between the Western powers and their Chinese imperial rival in the struggle for access to the continent’s vital mineral resources (with Chinese direct investment in sub-Saharan Africa already above the US figure).
The Western powers remain highly militarised imperial states grappling with the problem of long-term economic decline. Western imperialism is a wounded beast, not a carcass.
The Shape of Wars to Come?
Britain’s decline from superpower status began as early as 1890. But Britain emerged victorious from the carnage of the First World War with an even bigger empire than before, and then fought a Second World War to protect its empire that was even longer and bloodier 20 years later.
US decline began in the 1960s. That has not prevented the US from being the world’s single most aggressive military power in the decades since, with its armed forces almost always engaged in active operations somewhere in the world. It now faces challenges to its global hegemony comparable with those faced by Britain in the early 20th century. In the last issue of 2013, the lead editorial of The Economist, the in-house magazine of British capitalism, made direct comparison between 1914 and the present:
The US is Britain, the superpower on the wane, unable to guarantee global security. Its main trading partner, China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining territorial power. The parallels are not exact – China lacks the Kaiser’s territorial ambitions and America’s defence budget is far more impressive than imperial Britain’s – but they are close enough for the world to be on its guard.
The western Pacific rim has become tense. The outlines of a new Pacific War – like that fought between the Americans and the Japanese between 1941 and 1945 – are discernible. The deranged Stalinist regime in North Korea, hovering on the brink of implosion, is liable to lash out unpredictably and could trigger a new war in the Korean peninsula in a last desperate bid for survival. The right-wing regime of Shinzo Abe in Tokyo is deliberately stoking Japanese nationalism and increasing military spending, while the Communist Party dictatorship in Beijing – poised uneasily above an unbalanced, heavily indebted economy and a cauldron of social discontents and local protests – is matching that with its own brand of virulent Japanophobia. The current focus is the disputed Diayou/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
The Chinese have unilaterally declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the islands and the surrounding seas. The US has responded by reaffirming its military commitment to Japan and by flying two nuclear-armed B52 bombers over the islands. Japan and South Korea have since carried out copycat flyovers. The Chinese have responded in kind by deploying state-of-the-art SU-30 and J-11 fighter jets to patrol the contested air-space.
The islands, small and insignificant in themselves, straddle China’s shipping lanes and lie amid important oil, gas, and fish reserves. But behind the dispute lies both the deployment of nationalism as an instrument of domestic policy and growing tension between the great powers, clearly signalled in Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’ announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011, and plans to redeploy up to 60% of overseas US forces to the Asian-Pacific region. China’s response has been to launch its first aircraft-carrier, to announce plans for four more, and at the same time to develop a range of ‘carrier-killer’ anti-ballistic missiles.
This does not mean that war between China and the US is probable in the near future, and it may not become probable at any point. What it does mean is that it is possible, that the world is becoming a more dangerous place, that imperialism remains by far the greatest threat to world peace, and that the ultimatum cataclysm of a new world war between rival imperial powers is an inherent danger in the global system.
The Anti-War Movement
War remains a real and present danger in the modern world – civil war, proxy war, regional war, and perhaps, at some point, world war involving rival imperial superpowers. The need for a strong anti-war movement is as great now as at any time in the past. Maintaining a strong network of active anti-war groups is therefore a central task for revolutionaries.
- The parliamentary vote against an attack on Syria in August 2013
- The failure of the Obama administration to gain political support for an attack on Syria.
- The Russian initiated Syrian peace process.
- The ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme.
- The withdrawal of aid to the Syrian opposition by the US and the UK in December 2013.
- The withdrawal of UK troops from combat operations in Afghanistan.
- The UK and other European governments plans for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
- The likely continued presence of 10,000 US troops in a non-combat role in Afghanistan after 2014.
- The continued and spreading use of drone warfare.
- The increased use of surveillance as revealed by Edward Snowden.
- The 'pivot to Asia' redeployment of US military power to confront China.
- The spread of proxy and direct intervention by the western powers in sub-Saharan Africa.
- The unilateral declaration of an expanded air space by China.
- The deliberate breach of the extension of Chinese airspace by the US.
- The unilateral extension of air space by South Korea.
- That the US and allied invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the bombing of Libya, were failures in their own terms.
- That US power faces an imperial crisis produced by relative economic decline coupled with overwhelming military superiority over its competitors.
- That the re-emergence of Russia and the growth of China have exacerbated this crisis in the last ten years.
- That the Arab revolutions have made the environment for imperial interference in the Middle East less predictable and more volatile than it was under the rule of the Arab dictators.
- That the short term effect of this is to inhibit, but not exclude, direct military intervention in the Middle East.
- That there are many effects of the war on terror that will still be felt long into the future, for instance, Islamophobia, the intensification of internet surveillance and threats to civil liberties.
- That the increased use of drone warfare is one attempt to mitigate the effects of this crisis by waging a ‘casualty free’ (for the West) war.
- That the Syrian crisis represents direct and open breach between the major powers whose only precursor was the Georgian crisis of 2008.
- That the imperial powers are now set on a competitive course in which further conflicts between the US and its allies on the one hand and Russia and China on the other are more likely.
- This may not result in military conflict in the short term, but the potential for such conflict is now significantly greater.
- That the Sino-US conflict will not be confined to the far-East: Chinese foreign direct investment in Sub-Saharan Africa already exceeds the US figure. Hence the US encouragement of former European colonial powers to intervene in the area, for instance in Mali and Somalia.
- That the weakening of US power will allow sub-imperial states to pursue a more independent and therefore more destabilising policy, for example, the role of Turkey and the Gulf states in the Libyan and Syrian conflict.
- The UK government is seeking to use the 100th anniversary of the First World War to rehabilitate the idea of great power conflict as acceptable and defensible.
- That continued anti-war and anti-imperialist work is an essential priority for socialists.
- To actively support the Stop the War Coalition protest at the Nato summit in Newport in September.
- To support continued anti-drone warfare work by the Stop the War Coalition.
- To support the No Glory series of events designed to combat government propaganda concerning the anniversary of the the First World War during 2014
- To continue work opposing Islamophobia and attacks on civil liberties, highlighting opposition to the increased surveillance by the state.
- To continue Counterfire theoretical interventions aimed at charting and explaining the new phase of imperialism as it unfolds.
- To make an especial effort as Counterfire to produce Marxist interventions in the debate about the First World War.
More articles from this author
- Class and community: backing the Evonik workers
- Brighton bins win: GMB victory helps set the stage - News from the Frontline
- Making saving life a crime: the brutality of the Nationality and Borders Bill
- The billionaires and the race to the bottom: why Sage care workers are fighting on
- ‘Striketober’: the new militancy sweeping the US
- Welfare that makes you ill: the cruelty of the DWP
- Antigone: a shining example of disability-inclusive arts and thought-provoking theatre - review